Merton, Walter De

, the illustrious founder of Merton college, Oxford, which became the model of all other societies of that description, was bishop of Rochester and chancellor of England in the thirteenth century. Of his personal history very little is known. From a pedigree of him, written about ten years after his death, we learn, that he was the son of William de Merton, archdeacon of Berks in 1224, 1231, and 1236, by Christina, daughter of Walter Fitz-Oliver, of Basingstoke. They were both buried in the church of St. Michael, Basingstoke, where the scite of their tomb has lately been discovered. Their son was born at Merton, in Surrey, and educated at the convent there. So early as 1239 he was in possession of a family estate, as well as of one acquired. From his mother he received the manor of St. John, with which he commenced a public benefactor, by founding, in 1261, the hospital of St. John, for poor and infirm clergy; and after the foundation of Merton college, it was appointed in the statutes, that the incurably sick fellows or scholars of that | college should be sent thither; and the office of master was very early annexed to that of warden of Merton. Not many years ago, part of the chapel roof of this hospital remained, pannelled with the arms of Merton college in the intersections, and one of the gothic windows stopped up; but all this gave way to a new brick building in 1778.

According to Mr. Denne (Custumale Roffense, p. 193), he occurs prebendary of Kentish town, and afterwards had the stall of Finsbury, both of them in the church of St. Paul’s, London. He held in 1259 a prebend in Exeter cathedral; and, according to Browne Willis, was vicar of Potton in Bedfordshire at the time of his promotion to the see of Rochester. Other accounts say, that he was first canon of Salisbury, and afterwards rector of Stratton. He became eminent in the court of Chancery, first as king’s clerk, then as prothonotary, and lastly rose to be chancellor of England in 1258. Of this office he was deprived in the same year by the barons, but restored in 1261, with a yearly salary of four hundred marks; and held it again in 1274, in which year he was consecrated bishop of Rochester. He appears to have been of high credit in affairs of state, and consulted on all matters of importance, as a divine, a lawyer, and a financier. His death was occasioned by a fall from his horse, in fording a river in his diocese; soon after which accident he died, Oct. 27th, 1277. Notwithstanding his liberality, at his death he was possessed of goods valued by inventory at 5110l. of which he left legacies to the amount of 2126l. His debts amounted to 746l., and he had owing to him about 622l. He was interred on the north side of St. William’s chapel, at the north end of the cross aile in Rochester cathedral, with a marble monument, which had probably been injured or decayed, as in 1598, the present beautiful alabaster monument was erected by the society of Merton college, at the suggestion of the celebrated sir Henry Savile, then warden of the college.

With respect to the foundation of this college, an opinion has long prevailed, which the inquiries of some recent antiquaries have rendered doubtful. It was stated by Wood and others, that Walter de Merton first founded a college at Maldon, as a nursery for that at Oxford; that at a certain age the scholars were removed from Maldon to Oxford, where the founder provided a house for them on the site of the present college, and that the whole establishment was not removed from Maldon to Oxford | until the year 1274, when the third and last charter was obtained. On the other hand, his original intention appears to have been to establish a religious house at Maldon, consisting of a warden and priests, who were to appropriate certain funds, with which he entrusted them, to the maintenance and education of twenty scholars at Oxford or elsewhere, and that when he founded Merton college, he removed the warden and priests thither. What seems to confirm this account is, that the founder appointed a fellow of Merton college to instruct such of his students as were ignorant of grammar, which would not probably have been the case had they been brought from a preparatory school.

Nothing could be more satisfactory than to be able to trace the progress of this great work from these small beginnings, but all that can be now collected is, that having purchased several tenements, on the ground where the college stands, he began his erection, and by charter dated Jan. 7, 1264, established it by the name of Domus Scholarium da Merlon. This first charter, with the statutes prescribed in it, continued in force until 1270, when it was confirmed by a second, in which great additions were made to the endowment by estates in Oxford, Oxfordshire, and other counties; the scholars were increased, and the term f rat res became used as a farther step towards the present form. A third charter was granted in 1274. All these which respect the creation in 1264, the enlargement in 1270, and the completion in 1274, and refer to, and confirm one another, are now perserved in the library, and were consulted as precedents in the foundation of Peterhouse, the earliest college of the sister university, and probably of others in both universities. The first officers of Merton were appointed in 1276. It yet remains to be noticed that Walter de Merton’s preference of Oxford is thought to have been owing to his better acquaintance with the place, there being a tradition that he studied some time among the canons regular of Oseney, or in Mauger hall, in St. Martin’s parish, Oxford. By the assistance of subsequent benefactors, Merton college was progressively raised to its present state, in which it consists of a warden, twenty- four fellows, two chaplains, fourteen. portionista or postmasters, four scholars, and two clerks. 1

1 Wood’s Colleges and Halls. Chalmers’s Hist, of Oxford.